Dec 10th, 2020, 01:21 PM

Libertinage: A Peak Into France's World of Sex Parties and Clubs

By Lauren Nanes
Sex party attire. Image credit: Dainis Graveris on Unsplash.
Sex club attire. Image credit: Dainis Graveris on Unsplash.
A sex party organizer and party-goer tell all about the Parisian sexual underground.

With a glass of champagne in one hand and the other slightly sweating, I apprehensively followed the party guests into the bedroom where people had been disappearing to all night.

Unlike in the common area, the bedroom was very quiet. We encircled the bed and voyeuristically watched four shapeless bodies entangle one another, the occasional hand or body part jutting out to poke, prod and grab. We onlookers gazed as if contemplating an art installation. Reactions in the room were muted — smirks, glares and winks.  

In the common area where drinks and food were served, guests sat in a circle drinking white wine and whisky while discussing their private lives over smooth jazz and the occasional bedroom noise. Stares were commonplace as the periodic phone number exchange, make out, lap dance and underwear removal advanced with the night. The party, however, did not start out like this. Rather, it began as your average and common cocktail party. Guests who appeared to be between 20 and 50 years old arrived in pairs or trios. Wine was served, pizza was delivered. Couples sat around the living room table exchanging pleasantries. Interest was feigned over looks, small touches and conversation, leaving guests to slowly build up to their hopeful climactic exchange.

Sex parties, as I came to find out, are not abrupt episodes of uncontrollable chaos, they are methodical exercises in the art of seduction. 

The party was mainly for couples and single women, that is Wolf's specialty, although he also organizes couples-only parties and couples and single men. Wolf, 30 years old, is a well known sex party organizer in Paris and has been arranging these sex-fuelled celebrations since he was an 18-year-old student at AUP.  Initially hosting parties in the university dorms, Wolf now organizes sex parties in rented out apartments near Republique every Friday and Saturday night with guest lists that range from actors and journalists to everyday couples.

Wolf and two girls. Image credit: @wolfy_in_paris on Instagram.

Scrolling through pictures of couples on his computer, Wolf says, "Here's the menu for today. This guy, he's an athlete, and he will be with this girl. That is at 7:30 p.m.. Then at 9 p.m. there is another couple, this girl with this guy."

Receiving about 395 messages in one day, Wolf is rarely short of clientele and coasts through websites and applications in search of future libertines. While apps like Instagram and Tinder can be useful in sourcing participants, Wolf also credits apps like Feeld (a threesome dating app for couples and singles) and Fruitz where users actively specify their sex-life interests.

Facebook-like websites Wyylde and libertic act as a social network community where people can leave reviews, vote for 'best sex-party organizer' and meet like-minded individuals. Claiming to have been voted on Wyylde as one of the best organizers in Paris, Wolf has over 400 reviews on his account "Dionysosgroup". Although he uses the website to organize parties, Wolf says the website "is not so much for sex parties, but for people to meet each other."

Libertinage, a word I constantly heard being thrown around at Wolf's party, refers to the practice of debauchery. It is a norm-breaking sex culture that challenges the societal virtue of monogamy. Although now ridden with sexual connotations, the average libertine was not always a mascot for the sexually uninhibited.

Before sex parties and clubs, libertinage was an intellectual rebellion. Exported from Italy to France in the 17th century, the philosophy esteemed free thinking, relinquishing all moral and social disciplines to indulge in anti-establishment activities. The libertine was devoid of most moral principles, responsibilities or sexual restraints; a form of hedonism that gained traction in 18th century France and stuck. The Age of Enlightenment became enthralled with libertinage literature, molding French ideas of eroticism and liberty through La Belle Epoque to present day. 

Today libertinage encompasses a broad range of sexual habits, but the most common are echangisme, melangisme and cote-a-cotisme. Echangisme, otherwise known as swinging, is an old concept that has been frequented throughout history. Still it seems that some cultures frequent it more than others. A survey conducted by the dating website VictoriaMilan found that 33.8 percent of couples in France are echangiste, placing France as the European leader in libertinage. Melangisme and cote-a-cotisme, other popular libertine practices, have been coined as "soft swinging" for their non-penetrative aspects. Often practiced today by debutante couples, or beginners, melangisme allows for mixing and touching among couples while cote-a-cotisme only permits watching while next to another couple. 

The three practices harp on the importance of consent and equal desire from all parties involved.  

Purple Sexe campaign. Image credit: Johann Bouche-Pillon.

Although taboo, libertinage is widely popular and integrated into French culture. More than a concept, libertinage makes up a particular sect of French society. It has its designated journals: Purple Sexe, Couples and Deliciae Vitae. And a quick Google search leads to thousands of "libertine tourism guides", Facebook groups and links to the "best libertine and swinger cubs in France". Home to almost 500 sex clubs, most of which are in Paris, the French are no strangers to group sex. A study by the polling institute Ifop revealed that more than a quarter of Parisians have indulged in group sex with nearly one in six having swapped partners at a swingers' club. 

"Couples are very important now, that's the new jam. A lot of people are into swinging. The best thing about it is that the couple can play and do whatever they want and still go back home to their respective loved ones," says Wolf.

A hotspot for sexual debauchery, Paris sex clubs cater to all tastes meek and extravagant. Cheaper clubs like Le Fullmoon in the first arrondisement and Le Pluriel in the fourth start at 52 euros and often include free drinks, private buffets and rooms. While some offer women free access on most days like Le Moon City in the 18th, others are advertised as significantly more for men. Light shows at the Taken Club near the Notre-Dame Cathedral and "cuddle areas" at l'Overside in the sixth are just some of the spectacles promised at these backdoor establishments. The most notorious and rivaled clubs, however, are Les Chandelles near the Louvre museum in the posh first arrondisment and Le Mask in the second arrondisement. 

Many of the men and women that I had met at Wolf's party had also frequented sex clubs in their libertine pursuits. An exceptionally young looking 18-year-old girl who asked me to call her Kika told me over the increasingly growing bedroom noise that she had gone to Les Chandelles and Le Mask a couple of times. 

Le Mask: stairs leading to basement. Image credit: Le Mask website.

Reluctant to disclose where she was from for fear of judgement from her "small community", Kika told me she "really liked Le Mask. The people there were younger and even more open minded. The dress code was less strict and it was more direct." Recommending its clients wear a mask, Le Mask advertises a 65 euro entrance fee for couples on its website, a stark contrast to what Kika paid (180 to 200 euros).  The website, home to a message bar for members, reveals hundreds of reviews and ads for couples looking to meet, most leaving their email for contact. Open everyday except Sundays, the club's main event takes place downstairs where there are "two huge areas filled with people touching each other and having sex everywhere." Toys and chains are attached to the walls in the basement and beds of all sizes and pole-dancing corners fill the empty space. 

Just a 10-minute walk from Le Mask, where Kika says "sex is fastly integrated into the atmosphere," Les Chandelles rests as one of the most exclusive sex clubs in Paris with prices advertised as high as 290 euros a night. Kika claims her date paid an entrance fee of 300 to 400 euros for one evening.

Opened in 1933, the club is known for its high-profile clientele. Celebrities, writers and politicians, notably the infamous Dominique-Strauss Kahn, are regular attendees.  Discretion here is key as the club operates on a first name-only basis, taking bags and wallets upon entry to assure anonymity -- the bill racked up on a card left with the barman. "A lot of people hide their professions. When I was talking to a man at Les Chandelles and asked him what he does he said, 'I prefer not to say,'" says Kika. "Most of the people who go to Les Chandelles are CEOs or lawyers and can't have their identities revealed."

The age demographic differs drastically for men and women. While women at Les Chandelles are in their 20s and 30s, most men kick past 40 years old with some well into their 60s. The dress code is also relentlessly strict. Women must be in skirts or dresses and wear heels while men are required to wear suits. "When I got there the receptionist took my coat. He scanned us head to toe, looking at what we were wearing. He saw that I wasn't wearing any heels and said, 'No, the dress code is strict and you need to be wearing heels,'. He then asked for my shoe size and gave me heels," says Kika. 

The normal building entrance of the club eloquently hides the "very dungeon-like atmosphere inside," says Kika. Dark red lights and walls covered with stone give the impression of walking into a medieval castle. Downstairs champagne, strawberries and a chocolate fountain wait to greet incoming guests. A club restaurant invites guests to dine on pricey food and wine as they wait for the night to progress. Music and a bar leads couples to a dance floor with a pole in the middle. "It looks like a normal club," says Kika. "When you get attracted to other couples you go into the rooms, but you mainly see the food and the bar first."

"The club," Kika says, "is divided into two. One part has the bar, dance floor and food and the other has plenty of rooms. It's like a labryinth with many entrances. You can go anywhere and everywhere."

Inside the sex club area dim lights mute walls covered in velvet, room walls are adorned with handcuffs and host huge beds that can fit nine to 10 people. "You can barely see anything," says Kika. "I'm not going to lie, I was a bit scared. Not scared that I might get hurt, but scared it would be too much for me to handle. "

I thought back to Wolf's party where older men were eyeing her exposed legs as Kika, in a soft and sweet voice, said, "When I saw the handcuffs I felt so exposed. I felt naked all the time. But, nonetheless I felt very confident. You're attractive to everyone. Everyone wants you. Everyone finds you pretty and attractive, beautiful and sexual."

Sex clubs have a long and famous history in France. While prostitution no longer publicly remains in the business model, brothels, salons and Maison Closes (houses of pleasure, named because their shutters were sealed) flourished in La Belle Epoque. During the Napoleonic Era a great shift in the status quo occurred--prostitution was legalized. Believing that prostitution was a social necessity, reforms and Maisons de Tolerance (houses of tolerance) were institutionalized, propelling France into the golden era of bordellos. 

From the 1800s until their closure in 1946, French brothels dragged in noblemen, celebrities and esteemed writers from all over the world. The most famous and luxurious bordello, Le Chabanais, was a popular stop for rich European tourists. In the 19th century, French novelist Guy de Maupassant and Britain's Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, were regular clients. In the 20th century, it welcomed Hollywood film stars including Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich as well as surrealist artist Salvador Dali.

A cave-like lodge decorated with rocks, waterfalls, art deco staircases and railings covered in gold ropes, Le Chabanais was opened by Madame Kelly in 1878. Similar to Les Chandelles, it was located just a few steps from the Louvre and had a reputation for extravagance in both decor and high-society personalities. Every room had a theme, the "Morrish room" a favorite of the writer Guy de Maupassant. Popular stories about the club included King Edward VII's sphinx copper bathtub manufactured for his favorite suite and his "love seat" which is now displayed at the Erotic Museum in Pigalle. 

Le Chabanais: The Prince of Wales bedroom. Image credit: Book "Le Chabanais" by Nicole Canet.

But Le Chabanais was not the only distinguished brothel of its time. Male brothels like Hotel Marigny near Opera in the second arrondisement were often frequented by Marcel Proust and military men. 36 Rue Saint Sulpice, identifiable only by the number plate on building 36, was a popular spot among the ecclesiastic crowd of the sixth arrondisement. The etched mirror salons of Laperouse restaurant located at 51 Quai des Grands Augustins in the sixth arrondisement was an active crossroads of merchants, senators, literary figures and other wealthy gentlemen. Public figures gathered for a meal and a visit to the upstairs private rooms. Still open today, the previously awarded three Michelin star restaurant will show guests the upstairs salons upon request.

The antique mirrors are still clouded with etched marks where ladies would test their diamond gifts by scratching them on the glass. 

Etched mirror of Laperouse Restaurant. Image credit: Au Bonheur du Jour.

Paris had become a focal point for licentious tourism and with it the number of bordellos grew. Forced to close in 1946 largely after the Nazi Occupation, houses of pleasure were deemed illicit establishments. Yet, the wave of libertinage never left the city and sex clubs and parties lived on.

Today sex clubs and sex parties are nothing alike. At sex parties like Wolf's the music is low and the atmosphere is intimate. "You get to know people and their professions. It's more easy going. You're not forced to talk and you're not forced to have sex. You can do whatever you want," says Kika. At sex clubs, however, guests don't waste time easing into the fun. "When you're at a sex club," says Kika, "you get to know more the physical and sexual preference side instead of the personal. The music is very loud, people take a lot of poppers and hide their professions."

While some like Kika don't mind the difference, others like Wolf are dead set on the good of the party and the bad of the club. "It's the difference between fast food and a really good restaurant," says Wolf. "Let's just compare clubs to McDonald's and private sex parties to gourmet restaurants. We're not just pieces of meat. We should in some way connect before we think about having sex."

More than a question over quality, Wolf disagrees with sex clubs based on principle. "I'm extremely against them because they [clubs] look at it as taking advantage of the desperation of single men. Men are willing to pay upwards of 100 euros just to enter these clubs. If there is one woman or five women at a sex club, you'll find it overflowing with at least 20 men. The men that are desparate enough to pay are not the sexiest kind of men. We're talking about some really disgusting people, people that are over 60 and have huge bellies."

In order to deviate from what clubs do Wolf has shifted the focus of his parties towards the experience of the couple. Percentage is very important. "If there are two women at a club, they would invite 20 men," says Wolf. "I make parties so that it is maximum two men per couple. Claiming to only operate between the age range of 20 to 40, Wolf rarely charges couples for entry doing so only when renting out an apartment upwards of 3,000 euros per night. 

"Because clubs are financially driven they accept anyone and anything. You don't get to focus on the quality aspect of it, it's more about quantity," says Wolf. 

Girl crowded at a party. Image credit: Baptise MG on Unsplash.

While these parties allow couples to succumb to their inhibitions and have a care-free night, they are not without their burdens. Constantly trying to make newcomers feel comfortable and on the look out for anything going awry, Wolf's job as a sex party organizer doesn't always mean he gets to party too.  "I have a huge responsibility towards all of these people. I don't really feel like my life is mine. It's a small price to pay and I'm willing to pay it, but at times it can get a bit stressful," says Wolf. 

Unlike the business model for sex clubs, for Wolf organizing sex parties is "not about the money", but rather about community. "I know some people for 10 years now that have been coming to my parties. I've constructed friendships stronger than any I've had in my life. Not only are we having sex with these people, we are actually bonding. It's only during these environments that we start shedding all of our barriers with other people."

"You already feel accepted because you were accepted physically," says Wolf.

There is definitely a sense of community among libertines. Perhaps bonded by the judgement and prejudice against them or the acceptance shared among them, swingers and anti-monogomists alike have found company in libertinage. Smiling at me Kika says, "It's my comfort zone. You can honestly make so many friends in the libertinage world. They see you in your normal nature and they love you for that nature."

But like everything in life, libertinage has its negative aspects. "It can ruin your relationship with someone," says Kika. "Sometimes you might get too jealous and sometimes you might not get jealous at all and when you don't get jealous your partner feels neglected. When you get too jealous your partner feels that you don't trust them, that you have no faith in them and that you don't love them."

While advocates of the lifestyle boast the power that libertinage gives a couple, claiming no stronger reaffirmation of love exists, it seems that extravagant non-monogomous pursuits like sex clubs and parties can easily tip the scales out of favor. 

As Wolf's party emptied out I watched couples that came together, leave together. Boyfriends that were once having sex in the bedroom while their girlfriend flirted and drank wine were now putting the coats on their partners, smiling and saying goodnight. Husbands and wives played, or didn't, and then left, wedding bands wrapped tightly around their fingers. Everyone left to their respective homes with their respective people and the night tucked away like it was any other.